A Senate panel took a skeptical look at President Obama's request for $6.2 billion to combat Ebola Wednesday, with Republicans grilling the Administration on its quarantine protocols and the role of Ron Klain, the President's Ebola czar.
The ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Richard Shelby, criticized the Administration's "confusing and at at times contradictory" claims about the effectiveness of a quarantine. He and other GOP Senators questioned why the Pentagon has ordered a mandatory 21-day isolation period for all military personnel returning from the affected West African countries, while the federal government took months to add enhanced airport screenings for civilians and other non-military personnel traveling to the region.
Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell responded that while she respected the Pentagon's quarantine directive, the military's decision "was not based on the science."
Shelby also questioned the role of Ebola czar Ron Klain, saying that "all reports indicate that he has no actual authority." The witnesses responded that they had been in frequent contact with Klain. Burwell said she had been in touch him "every day" and touted the "added value" Klain brings to coordinating policies with the departments and the White House.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, who will lose her gavel to Shelby in the new Republican-majority next year, said the emergency request to contain and eradicate Ebola met her criteria.
"It's sudden, unanticipated, unforeseen, urgent and temporary," Mikulski said. The country, she added, needs to "face very clearly the fear that it generates" and repeated that America has had nine, "N-I-N-E," cases while West Africa has dealt with thousands. Mikulski added that she wants the Ebola funding to go into a year-long omnibus bill, which must pass by Dec. 11 to avert a government shutdown.
Nearly $3 billion of Obama's request will be allocated to USAID and the State Department, which will use the money for additional training of health care workers and burial teams and to build and maintain more treatment centers. Heather Higginbottom, Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources, told the panel the U.S. anti-Ebola effort is "the largest-ever U.S. government response to a global health crisis," with more than 1,800 Pentagon officials, 36 USAID workers and 163 Health and Human Services personnel in West Africa.
Much of the rest of the requested spending—$2.4 billion—would go to the Department of Health and Human Services, which will continue to ramp up U.S. hospital training. HHS says that more than 250,000 health care personnel have participated in the department's informational events. Hundreds of millions of dollars would be allocated to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, which would, respectively, hire more officers to investigate and monitor the disease and invest in research and development of vaccines.
The World Health Organization announced Wednesday that there were 14,098 reported cases and 5,160 deaths in the current outbreak, with the vast majority in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. This week the last known Ebola patient in the United States was cured and released from a New York hospital.